According to his own account, David Bellos’s recent book, Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything, began as a diatribe in response to a comment made by a parent of a student at Princeton University, where he teaches. When Bellos said he was a translator, the parent quipped, in presumed agreement on the subject, “But a translation is never a substitute for the original, is it?” Maybe the parent meant to say, “a translation is never an adequate substitute.” Or, arguably, it was no more than idle chitchat, not warranting a second thought, much a less a three hundred-plus page riposte. On the other hand, imagine pointing to Yousuf Karsh’s famous photograph of Ernest Hemingway and saying, “It’s no substitute for the original, is it?”
In the first case, the parent’s comment represents an accepted bit of folk wisdom about translation, which, as is often the case with bits of folk wisdom, has more to do with anxiety than with fact. In the second case of the photograph, even if one said “no adequate substitute,” it would still sound absurd. In both cases, the remark is true in a completely immaterial way, and false in very significant ways, the foremost of which is the problem this book tries to resolve: the conundrum of what translation actually is. Among other things, it is something that needs defending.
And who better to defend the rich matter of translation from vagueness and false presumption than a celebrated translator, one of whose very important tasks is to clarify and refine? David Bellos’s mastery of French—and equally important, English—has helped bring to a wider audience the works of Georges Perec, Romain Gary and the Albanian writer Ismail Kadare. He has also written biographies of Perec, Gary and the French filmmaker Jacques Tati, and runs Princeton's Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication. Which is to say, a good part of Bellos’s intellectual work happens not just in (at least) two distinct languages, each with its own wealth of specificity and meaning, but also in the dynamic space between them. No doubt, Is That a Fish in Your Ear? provides a way for the author to clarify the meaning of translation to himself, as well as to many a “rather plump, pink-faced parent.”
A good teacher of life drawing knows that one does not teach students to draw; one teaches students to see, replacing ideas about what things look like in favor of measured perceptions. Similarly, Bellos’s book deconstructs the implications of language tools one takes for granted, from dictionaries to automated language translation programs such as Google Translate, suggesting we are all translators every time we pick up a thesaurus, or that the reason automated translation programs work is that we mostly use language to say the same things over and over again. And judging by the blithely unpretentious tone of Is That a Fish in Your Ear?—the title of the book comes from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which mentions a universal translating tool in the shape of a “small, yellow, leech-like” fish one sticks in the ear—and his preoccupations with Perec and Tati, masters of visual and linguistic play, discovery and delight clearly play vital roles in Bellos’s intellectual investigations. One could think of David Bellos as the Richard Feynman of translation, in that he approaches his subject with a lively acumen that fundamentally transforms the reader’s understanding of it. Each of their work imagines the possibility of a general interest in translation and physics, respectively.
Bellos’s penchant for liveliness is evident in this diatribe-cum-book, from the plainest possible response “Translations are substitutes for original texts,” to the resounding closing remark. Here is a brief summation of everything in between, in puzzle form and with minimal paraphrasing:
Translation: always takes the register and level of naturally written prose up a notch or two; is the guardian and, to a surprising degree, the creator of the standard forms of language; sometimes (in the case of the Bible) enriches the target language, while corrupting the original text; is the opposite of empire; in addition to pointing to an original text, also generates a genuinely new thing; is meaning; preserves the information and general force of the original; is a portrait in oils; is an appropriation of the source; is another name for the human condition.
“Translation is another name for the human condition.” However hyperbolic when taken out of context, this last claim comes fully justified when backed up by one delightful discovery after another. Among this reader’s favorites are various debunkings of literary and linguistic hoaxes, as well as particular insights Bellos may not have known he was supplying to a native speaker of Romanian. In the chapter “Fictions of the Foreign,” he describes the pattern by which the sound of the foreign to the ancient Greeks, “va-va-va,” or simply, incomprehensible blabber, created the name for all “non-Greek-speakers varvaros, that is to say, barbarians.” He also mentions that the Russian word for “German” comes from an older form of the language, in which the word means, “dumb, speechless;” and in doing so, he provides the old Russian word in Cyrillic, Немец (pronounced némets). It’s not necessary even to understand written Russian, just to be able to read Cyrillic characters phonetically, to see that the Romanian word for German: Neamţ (Romanian pronunciation: ne̯amt͡s) is a Russian import.
Compared to some of the important historical and cultural achievements indebted to translation that Bellos mentions, the origin of the Romanian word for “German” may not seem like a very important discovery; however, to someone who delights in words and how we use them, it’s another clear note in an “unfinished piece for the player piano” (to borrow the title of a film by Nikita Mihalkov). Discovery and delight, after all, are two antidotes for ignorance and anxiety, all of which make up the majority of the human condition.
The poet Derek Mahon, who is also a notable translator, sparked one of my own first queries about translation. After coming across some poems, “translated from the Romanian by Derek Mahon,” in college, I wrote to him, terribly excited that this poet whose work I admired so much had a working knowledge of Romanian. I was initially disappointed to learn that he didn’t speak Romanian at all, but translated from French, only later understanding that French and German are the most common vehicular languages by which Romanian writing—or Kadare’s Albanian—might reach the shores of the English speaking world.
Derek Mahon’s poem “The Forger” is written in the voice of the 20th century Dutch artist Han van Meegeren, considered an ingenious forger of Vermeer’s paintings; but it may as well be the voice of the literary translator when he says:
Now, nothing but claptrap
About “mere technique” and “true vision,”
As if there were a distinction –
Their way of playing it down.
But my genius will live on;
For even at one remove
The thing I meant was love.
When Bellos insists that “translation is meaning,” the word “meaning” could be read as “sense,” but also as “intention,” reminding one that a translator is also a writer, as van Meegeren was also a painter. Where they may not share forgery’s deceit, forgery and literary translation do share mastery. As with van Meegeren, “even at one remove,” the thing a translator means is love.